In a Nutshell:
I was introduced to Kate Morton's writing when I picked up The Forgotten Garden. Her writing was reminiscent of the Bronte sisters, with a sprawling family drama that spanned as far back as the ruined castles and estates that seem to be the backdrop for her stories. I really enjoyed it, and when I found The Distant Hours, I couldn't resist. Morton's Gothic Victorian style is alive and well in The Distant Hours. A tired, moldy castle whispers secrets of the distant hours of the Blythe family. At the center of the Blythe family legacy...and intrigue...is Raymond Blythe. A father of three girls and an author of a classic thriller called "The Mudman", he rules his family with a needy, jealous love even well beyond the grave. The story jumps generationally, where you meet the Blythe sisters in their advanced years as old spinster sisters sitting in their dusty castle and then go back during the war while the sisters were young women, and through memories even touch on the sisters as they were children. Gradually you peel away the layers of secrets and drama that the main characters have layered around them. Love, affairs, mental instability, scandal, deception, murder, heartbreak; its all in here. And the main character who you are on the sleuthing journey with is Edith Burchill.
Edith works in publishing in London and discovers her pedestrian mother had kept a secret for years from her and her father. A letter shows up on a normal Sunday from 30 years ago that causes Edith's very composed mother to sob and break down. She doesn't tell anyone why she is so upset, instead is very secretive. Edith, concerned and curious, looks at the return address, thus beginning her journey that draws her to the castle and the sisters Blythe.
Meridith and Edith are connected to the castle and the Blythe family by WWII. Edith's mother, Meridith, was an evacuee from London during World War II and lived at the castle for over a year. Meridith becomes best friends with the youngest Blythe sister, Juniper, and is introduced to writing as a career with the whispering castle that was the backdrop for "The Mudman" as inspiration. This time in Meridith's life she kept secret from her family, and did not want to remember it. Edith wants to know why her mother is behaving this way, and starts her journey to find out. As Edith uncovers all the secrets of Middlehurst Castle, she strengthens her own self esteem and resolve, as well as grows her relationship with her own mother. She also becomes the catalyst for the Blythe sister's closure with their own pasts.
There is a lot to like in this book. The description of the castle and area is engrossing. The layers of secrets you uncover with Edith, little by little, make you want to stay up late into the night to figure out the next connection. Morton weaves clues so beautifully nuanced that you are putting things together even before Edith does, and hoping down the road that your guess is right. The tangled relationships that Morton describes is also very engaging. I especially enjoyed Edith's relationship with her mother. It was so real. Daughters often have tenuous relationships with their mothers. It is often very true that daughters don't really see their Mothers as people that had lives, dreams and adventures before they were born. There is often an invisible barrier that is there, and as Edith's mother starts opening up to who she is and breaking down that barrier, Edith begins to understand and accept her. They become closer for it.
The other layer of genius...you can call it almost meta, is the story within a story. The story of "The Mudman" is shared in snippets, but the first chapter is what launches the whole story at the very beginning. It is totally engrossing and beautifully written. And it is the center point of the whole Blythe story. Morton should almost write "The Mudman" in it's entirety as a sequel! I would read it. This "mudman", in many ways, is what has destined the sisters Blythe to all their various fates. Their aging, sad, dusty story is beautifully woven and revealed. You feel sadness, love and anger for all of them at various times in the book. What a tangled web they wove.
My only complaint about the book is the ending. I don't want to spoil anything. I will just say that it ends somewhat poetically, then an afterword continues where the multitude of loose ends get tied for you, the reader only (not Edith, mind you, who you have been on this sleuthing journey with the whole time.) I am not sure why it was handled in this way. It almost looks as if the editors wanted more and Morton wanted to end it her way, so this was the compromise? It felt weird and disjointed from the rest of the writing. I felt like there could have been a way to tie some loose ends within the flow of the story and call it a day. But you read for yourself and form your own opinion. I had to pay an extra 60 cents for my library book returned late so I could finish it, and I was disappointed in the ending. Was it worth 60 cents as a whole? Abso-frickn-lutely. As the nights get colder, this is the perfect book to keep you warm at night. Trust me.
I also am going through ancient English castle withdrawal now so I promptly checked out The House At Riverton by Morton too! (stay tuned)
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